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Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic - Tom Holland

”Rather than gesture his men onward, Gaius Julius Caesar instead gazed into the turbid waters of the Rubicon, and said nothing. And his mind moved upon silence.

The Romans had a word for such a momentDiscrimen, they called it--an instant of perilous and excruciating tension, when the achievements of an entire lifetime might hang in the balance. The career of Caesar, like that of any Roman who aspired to greatness, had been a succession of such crisis points. Time and again he had hazarded his future--and time and again he had emerged triumphant. This, to the Romans, was the very mark of a man.”

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Julius Caesar

In 49 BC when Julius Caesar made the fateful decision to cross the Rubicon with his soldiers, and march on Rome this was the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic. This is considered the watershed moment of Roman history, 

but really the trouble all starts with Sulla

Just a few decades before Caesar’s march on Rome Sulla and Marius were embroiled in a battle for power.Everything culminates when Sulla wins the right to go East and fight Mithridates. Every patrician worth his salt prays to the gods for someone like Mithridates to come along to advance their careers. Marius, with political astuteness, manages to find enough senators to overturn Sulla’s appointment. Things quickly get out of hand. Sulla marched on Rome and demands his appointment back. There are riots, stonings, and general unrest among the Roman population. Sulla is granted his appointment again. 

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While Sulla is gone Marius is in charge of Rome, and promptly musters enough votes to exile Sulla. Now the trouble is if you are a senator existing under these circumstances with two very powerful men vying for your loyalty what do you do? If you back the wrong horse it isn’t just about your career. Potentially your life, your possessions, and the lives of your family are all on the line if your guy fails to keep power. 

While Marius is back home trying his best to destroy Sulla. Sulla is in the East kicking Mithridates rear end all over Asia. Just a quick word about Mithridates. This guy, when he comes to power, has his brother and sister killed, and his mother murdered as well. He gives himself doses of poison to build up his resistance for any future attempted assassinations. Even with his army in shambles he somehow escapes displaying that feral survival skill that will save him time and time again. 

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Mithridates had a role to play in Roman politics.

Of course Sulla is well aware of what has been going on back in Rome. He comes home triumphant, and promptly marches on Rome a second time. This time the senate declares him dictator, in an attempt in my opinion to give him what he wants, and hopefully spare their lives as well. 

It doesn’t work. 

Sulla, flushed with self-importance, and frankly pissed off sends out lists of enemies of the state i.e. people who opposed Sulla. This is where those who backed the wrong horse lose everything. Julius Caesar, a young lad and heir of the prestigious Julian family, finds himself on the run, hiding in the countryside, and avoiding, sometimes bribing, bounty hunters who were trying to collect the price on his head. It was to leave a lasting impression on Julius. 

Sulla in 81 BC steps down as dictator and returns Rome to the republican model they had been following in the past. Julius Caesar mocked Sulla for doing so. I’m sure from a properly safe distance away. 

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During this period Romans were cuisine crazy and even more fish crazy. One of the richest among them, Lucullus split a mountain in two to bring salt water to his pond, so that he could raise the salt water creatures that he wanted to have readily available for his dining pleasure.

By 60 BC Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and Crassus had formed what Tom Holland called a Triumvirate. Instead of fighting each other for ultimate power they decided to just carve up the empire between them, sharing power, and making it almost impossible for Cato the Younger and Cicero who opposed this powerful trio to have any chance in eroding their control. In 53 BC nature does what Cicero and Cato can not...Crassus dies. 

Julius Caesar meanwhile is invading Britain on the pretext that they had offered help to Rome’s enemies. He soon has to abandon his plans of conquest to put down a revolt in Gaul. Vercingetorix manages to unite the tribes of Gaul under one banner, and wins a couple of battles against Caesar. At the Battle of Alesia, Caesar is pinched between two Gaul forces, and manages to defeat both sides. He also captures Vercingetorix. The leader of the Gauls is thrown in chains and brought back to Rome to be publicly beheaded for the enjoyment of the Roman citizens. Vercingetorix is the cherry or rather the noggin to top off a very elaborate triumphal parade.

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Vercingetorix, defeated, but immortalized.

All of Rome was following the exploits of Caesar, equivalent, as Holland says to the time of the moon landings when almost the entire United States population was glued to TVs and radios to hear Neil Armstrong utter those famous words. Even Cicero, sworn enemy of Caesar, was gleefully following the events in Britain and Gaul as they unfolded. The idea, even a glimmer of a thought, that Caesar would lose is preposterous. 

”A Roman could no more conceive of the Republic’s collapse than he could imagine himself an Egyptian or a Gaul. Fearful of the gods’ anger he may have been, but not to the point of dreading the impossible.”

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Pompey the Great. I smile every time I see his smirk which adorns most of his sculptures.

Pompey realizes that Caesar has become much more powerful and much more popular than even his own grand self. He aligns himself with the senate in an attempt to balance out this shifting of power with Caesar . They order Caesar to disband his army. 

Yeah right. 

A sub-story, that is absolutely fascinating, involves the more thuggish elements behind the scenes. Clodius (Claudius) and his sister Clodia (Claudia) are patricians who changed their names to more plebeian pronunciations to better identify with those that would become their main base of support. They were charming, beautiful, charismatic people who were both sexually attractive to men and women. Rumor has it, malicious maybe, that they were more attracted to each other than other people. The rumor grew to the point that Clodius is actually accused of incest. He is acquitted for lack of evidence, but his ability to spread cash among the jury probably didn’t hurt his cause either. He was a supporter of Crassus. His arch rival Milo, was a Pompey supporter, so along the lines of the enemy of my enemy is my friend he became more closely aligned with Caesar after Crassus died.

This is a different kind of politics with Clodius and Milo having bands of thugs who fought epic gang style battle through the streets of Rome. He famously burns down the forum. It is easy to dismiss Clodius, as much of history has, as a man more interested in violence than in truly championing reform, but if we can set aside his flamboyant brutality he did support and sponsor legislation that was very progressive. Historians are in the process of reevaluating his possibly maligned image. Clodia was just as political and just as dangerous as her brother. 

”Her eyes, dark and glittering, had the ox-like appearance that invariably made Roman men go weak at the knees.”

When a humorist called her Lady Copper-Bit referring to the low-rent hookers who stood on street corners. He ”soon had the smile wiped off his face. Publicly beaten and gang-raped, it was he who had been used like a whore.”

They were a sibling duo not to be messed with. 

Just ask Cicero.

Cicero testified in yet another trial where Clodius stands accused. When all the dust settles Cicero is in exile, and his house has been bought by Clodius and razed to the ground. 

Caesar crosses the Rubicon and 460 years of Rome being a republic come to an end. Pompey raises an army that has no real chance against the battlefield hardened warriors that make up the Caesar legions. Pompey escapes to Egypt only to be murdered on the shore at the order of Ptolmey XIII, Cleopatra’s brother. 

”A Roman renegade drew his sword and ran him through the back. More blades were drawn. The blows rained down. And Pompey, drawing his toga over this face with both hands, endured them all, nor, did he say or do anything unworthy, only gave a faint groan. And so perished Pompey the Great.”

There is certainly something poignant about the death of Pompey. It has always bothered me that Ptolmey had Pompey’s head spiked and displayed as if he were a criminal or had been defeated in battle, when really he had been murdered most cowardly. To Caesar’s credit when he saw the head of Pompey displayed in such a manner he wept. 

There is no one left to oppose Caesar. Cato was asked nicely to commit suicide, and he did so. Cicero is murdered. 

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Cicero, the great orator. I don’t know why, but I’ve just never warmed to him.

”Trapped by his executioners at last, Cicero leaned out from his litter and bared his throat to the sword. This was the gesture of a gladiator, and one he had always admired. Defeated in the greatest and deadliest of games, he unflinchingly accepted his fate. He died as he would surely have wished bravely, a martyr to freedom and to freedom of speech.” 

Caesar lived happily ever after. 

Well not exactly. 

On March 15th 44 BC he is set upon by a group of senators and stabbed to death. Beware the Ides of March. There were so many men involved in the assassination that many of them were stabbed by fellow conspirators trying to plunge their knives into Caesar’s body. Brutus, son of Caesar’s mistress, was one of the main conspirators. Interesting enough knifing someone in the back runs in the Brutus family. One of his ancestors assassinated the last king of Rome. 

I’ve only skimmed the surface of what this book covers. Tom Holland’s breezy, novelistic style presents the information in such a palatable form that I feel this is a good introductory book to someone who wants to learn more about the beginning and ending of the Rome Republic. For those, like myself, who need a brush up on the period it serves that purpose as well. 

An interesting piece of trivia about Tom Holland is that I first encountered him as a novelist of...well...

Vampire books. 

They are not listed in this book. I would guess that now that he has turned his pen to serious non-fiction books he considers that chapter in his life, writing of the undead, closed. I actually rather enjoyed his horror books. For those Byron fans, Lord Of The Dead takes the melancholy poet and turns him into a rather interesting blood sucking fiend.